Learning to Stay Present Takes Time

After years of practice, it is still incredibly easy for me to get lost in thought and lose sight of what’s happening around me, but I now know a few tricks to stay present.

Jun 23, 2023

Learning to Stay Present Takes Time

Earlier this week I wrote about the future. The way we are constantly moving toward it and any and all uncertainties it holds. For some, the uncertainty of the future can be a point of obsession. My tendency, though, is getting lost in the past. As the name of my blog implies, I’m a thinker and frequently devolve into overthinking. I catch myself absorbed in thoughts so deeply that I lose sight of what’s around me. Sometimes I catch myself overthinking, focusing on what was said or not said, on a memory that I didn’t know existed, on what could’ve been. I get so deep into my own head, it’s common for me to miss out on the now.

A few months ago, I decided I was going to prioritize myself. Every Friday, I run at my favorite hiking trail, The Badlands. There’s this one moment mid-point on my route that I absolutely love. It gets extremely quiet. The only sound is the crunch of sand under foot. Each sound echoing off the walls of sandstone that were probably formed when the valley I live in was part of the Gulf of California and later Lake Cahuilla. Some of the walls have carvings shaped like melting ice cream. It’s a gem a mere few miles from home.

This past Friday during my weekly run I missed all of this. At some point after I left the hills, I realized I didn’t take time to admire something new. No matter how often I go, there’s always something I hadn’t noticed before: the yellow bloom of a creosote, the black freckled feathers of a pigeon out of place against the beige rocks, the scurrying of fringe-toed lizards. All because I couldn’t stop obsessing over a conversation I had the weekend before about what is and isn’t good teaching. I was so mad at myself for wasting the short 50 minutes that was supposed to be devoted to myself on a conversation with a person who will surely continue doing what they’re doing regardless of anything I said. 

Staying in the present is challenging and, perhaps for some, something to avoid. During a conversation in the second season of Cruel Summer, the main character, Megan, and new exchange student, Pia, are having a conversation about the expectations of the town. Megan begins by advising Pia:

“Here’s the thing about this town, just keep your expectations low, and you’ll be less disappointed.”

“Don’t worry, I’m all about living in the now.”

“That sounds horrible.”

“Actually, it’s pretty liberating. You should try it.”

Their conversation perfectly summarizes the two types of mindsets I often hear about living in the now: one which finds the present as something to avoid, and another that finds the present liberating. I align with the latter. There is something so freeing about being able to enjoy the moment without the intrusive past or uncertain future taking over.

As someone who naturally focuses on the past, staying present doesn’t come easy. It takes constant effort to will myself out of my own head. This doesn’t even begin to factor the endless distractions of the world. Being mindful is one way to combat myself and any distractions to attain a sense of presence in the world. 

Mindfulness helps provide distance from our thoughts and emotions, which allows for space to observe, understand, and ideally control them. It’s taken me years to develop a somewhat effective mindfulness strategy that involves asking questions, realizing when I’m ready (or not) to think through something, and using stretching or exercise to quiet my mind. It doesn’t always work—like spending my run replaying a conversation over and over in my head—but it does provide me with a set of tools to manage my thinking often before it turns into overthinking. All of which has helped me find a sense of peace and comfort with myself.

Staying in the present is hard. For many years, I was like Megan. There have been points in my life that warranted some form of escape, and my tendency to fall into the past was formed. Today, I want to be here. I want to appreciate what’s in my life now as well as later. To do that, I’ll keep practicing mindfulness and using whatever’s in my toolbox to calm my thoughts to enjoy each moment.